Thunder’s tent was pitched on a small clearing facing the “Emu Hotel.” and Professor Thunder, clad somewhat after the manner of the bushranger in lurid Australian melodrama, in high boots, cord trousers, a red shirt, and an immense cabbage-tree hat, stood on a borrowed rum keg at the door of his show, and earnestly besought Sawyer’s customers to visit his unrivalled show and complete their education.
“Roll up, gents, roll up, roll up, roll up!” cried the Professor, in a voice keyed to stir the whole town ship. “Bring your families to learn how man sprang from the ape, and when the ape’s got claws like my gorilla’s he shows his good sense in springing. Walk in, walk in, walk in, all together, one after the other, and witness the most miraculous performance of Madame Marve, the Egyptian Mystic, converse with the educated pig, and behold for the first time the amazing Missing Link, the wonder of the universe, the only true authentic Missing Link now in captivity, certified correct in every particular by the great Darwin himself, and approved by all the crowned heads of Europe.”
It was Saturday noon, and the township of Loo was rapidly filling with convivial shearers. The sheds were cutting out at Dim Distance, Devil’s Bend, and the Emu, and the men were full of money, and eager for beer and diversion.
When a score or so had collected inside, the Professor came down from his keg, and assumed the office of lecturer, explaining the quaint physical peculiarities of Matty Cann, and the intellectual eminence of the educated pig, and then passing to his trump card—the Missing Link.
“Here we have, gentlemen,” he exclaimed, “a living exemplification of the truth of the teachings o the great Darwin. Behold the descent of man in all its stages, from the smallest ape that capers on the rocky declivities of the Himalaya Mountains, to the noble Missing Link himself, having the splendid proportions of the human man, and almost his god like intellect.”
One party of four young shearers from Devil’s Bend exhibited great interest in Mahdi.
“D’yeh mean t’ say that animal’s worth four thousan’ quid?” asked one of these.
“Four thousand seven hundred pounds, fifteen shillings, is the exact sum what was offered me by the Anthropological Society of Berlin,” said the Professor, “but I wouldn’t part with him for ten thousand.”
The shearers marvelled together, and watched Mahdi’s movements with deep attention, and Nickie, acting up to instructions, glowered in the shade. When a visitor wanted to look into details, the Missing Link displayed quite human astuteness in retreating into cover in the gloom.
“Suppose he’s like us in most iv his ways?” continued Bill. “Does he smoke, ’r chew, ’r drink?”
“Its considered by the faculty and all the scientific gents that proof of his being a near relation to the human race is found in the fact that he has a weakness for intoxicating liquors,” said the Professor, sadly. “We’ve tried to reform him, but he refuses to become teetotal, showing how much a man he is.”
Bill and Ben and Mike and Fred applauded these sentiments. Then they returned to the Emu bar and had another drink.
“Four thousan’ bloomin’ quid fer a blanky monkey!” said Bill, and he looked dreamily at his companions. “Four thousand quid!” he added. “It’s a sin.”
“Now, supposin’ that monkey was to get away! There’d be four thousan’ o’ th’ best tearin’ round in th’ bush fer anyone t’ drop on.”
“He couldn’t,” said Mike, “outer that iron cage.”
“He could,” said Bill, “if he was helped.” Ben, Mike and Fred woke up. They looked hard at Bill. Bill had a grave, still face. He winked his left eye suddenly.
“If he did escape there’d be a reward. I reckon,” said Ben.
“Precisely,” said Bill; “there’d be a reward. Now, if that Missin’ Link could escape—if helped—and if there was a reward offered fer his capture, what’s t’ prevent us earnin’ it?”
The shearers looked at each other gravely. Then they all winked.
“The spoutin’ bloke sez he likes his fill iv tangle,” said Bill, “well he’ll get it t-night. I’m goin t’ stand a spree fer me poor relation.”
That night at about ten o’clock, when Professor Thunder was concentrating the attention of his patrons on the fascinating boniness of Matty Cann, Nickie, who was taking his ease on the straw, became aware of a slight disturbance at his elbow, between the back of his cage and the tent wall. Blinking his eyes he discovered the shape of a man in the darkness. The man held a pannikin in one hand, and was offering it through the bars.
“Here, old boy. Here old fellow,” murmured the intruder, in a tone one adopts in propitiating strange dogs.
He shook the pannikin, and the Missing Link detected the familiar flavour of rum, good red-rum, bush rum. Nickie sniffed again, and backed away, growling a low, guttural growl. The Missing Link had a great tenderness for rum, the smell of it excited profound longings, but he wanted time to deliberate. What was the game? “These fellows have heard Thunder describing Mahdi’s fondness for liquor,” thought Nickie. “They want to make him drunk, and see him play up. It’s a lark. Shall I encourage them? I can do it safely to a moderate extent. It’s like flying in the face of Providence missing drinks that are thrown at you. I’ll encourage them to the extent of one drink, anyhow. Here’s luck.”
The Missing Link seized that pannikin of rum, the Missing Link took a good, long pull, and in less than half a minute was curled up on the straw, dead to the world, a thoroughly hocussed man-monkey.
When Professor Thunder came to shake up his justly celebrated Link, he found the cage empty, and a bar wrenched from its place in the back wall. He drew his own conclusions—conclusions most unfavourable to Mahdi—and used his own language. He closed his show, and went raging about Loo township in quest of his stray freak.
Nickie the Kid awakened from a death-like sleep in the early hours of a warm summer Sunday. Dawn steeped the bush in crimson, the smoke of a dying camp-fire curled high in the air and its top most spiral caught the red glow of the young sun. About that camp-fire, twisted on their rugs and blankets on the grass in the quaint attitudes of out-door drunks, lay four shearers, Bill, Mike, Ben, and Fred. Near them were scattered various bottles, all empty.
Nickie rubbed his eyes with his hairy paw, and stared at the recumbent figures. His head seen as capacious as an iron tank, and every inch of it held a special and independent ache. The Missing Link was trying to think.
Understanding came in a flash. He had been stolen from the show. These rascals had given him hocussed rum, and had got him away, probably tied to one of the horses. His aching limbs hinted at that, and he could see the horses grazing among the trees.
Nickie reviewed the situation. He was tethered to a tree, his bonds were stout, and his captors had not made sufficient allowance for the almost human intelligence of Professor Thunder’s star performer. All about were scattered the utensils of a late supper, and with the aid of a stick the Link contrived to draw a knife within reach. With this he promptly cut the rope.
When free Nickie went quietly and deliberately to work to overhaul an open swag. He took a coat, pair of trousers, a pair of boots, and a hat, and with these under his arm retired to the bush to make his toilet.
An hour later three shearers, Bill, Fred, and Ben, riding at a gallop along the high road to Loo, came upon a man with a bundle walking cheerfully in the same direction. The horsemen pulled up.
“Hi, mate, have you seen anythin’ of a strange sort of animal on this road?” cried Bill.
“Have I?” answered the man. “My word, I have! A great, big, red, hairy bunyip ’r somethin’ charged out o’ th’ bush ’bout a mile back, bowled me over an’ went howlin’ down th’ road in a cloud o’ dust.”
“Which way?” gasped Bill.
The pedestrian pointed in the direction of Loo. “That’s th’ way he went,” he said. “Cripes, I’d a’ thought I seen a fantod on’y I bin teetotal fer a year.”
The shearers whipped up, and rode on at a gallop, and the man grinned after them with exquisite joy. “Well, life’s worth living after all.” said Nickie the Kid.
Before Sunday night it was known at Loo that the Missing Link, which had been stolen or had escaped, was once more safely bestowed in Professor Thunder’s Museum, and when the show opened on Monday there was something like a run on it. With the curious crowd came Bill, Ben, and Fred, Mike having been left to keep camp. At the sight of the shearers before his cage, the Missing Link simulated a paroxysm of ungovernable rage. He bit, glared, roared, and reaching his mighty claws towards Bill, made murderous sweeps in the air, as if desirous of disembowelling that hapless young man.
“That’s curious.” said Professor Thunder, regarding the shearer sternly. “My Link don’t often go on like that, and when he does he has good reason. See here, young gentlemen, what did you have to do with the purloining of my man-monkey Saturday night?”
Bill protested fiercely. “Never put a hand on yer blanky monkey. Wouldn’t touch him with er forty-foot pole.”
“Well, he as good as says you did.”
Bill grinned. “You can’t send a bloke up on th’ say so of a Missin’ Link,” he said. “You can’t put a monkey in the witness box t’ swear a man’s character away.”
“I don’t know,” said the Professor. “That’s a delicate point of law, but we may as well have a word with the constable about it.”
The shearers didn’t stay to take part in the consultation with the constable—Professor Thunder had not expected them to. “They lit out in a great hurry,” he explained to the Missing Link at lunch time. “With a bit of engineering I might have shaken a few pounds out of them in the way of compensation. I was too hasty. Now, we’ll have to leave their punishment in the hands of heaven, and there is no money in that.”
“Heaven has punished them already, Professor,” said the Missing Link, with a wide, simian smile.
Nickie’s smile deepened. “There was eleven pounds in the pocket of the trousers I borrowed to come home in,” he said.